For some reason and lovely though it is, press tickets for Buxton Opera House invariably mean you are crammed up against the lighting rig way up in Ye Gods. It’s not the most comfortable way to spend an evening, I will cheerfully concede.

Support act Smith and Brewer wander on and are a competent and pleasant enough listen, with some interesting lyrics and quality acoustic picking. There’s a lot of it about, but you could spend half an hour in significantly worse company, even when they do the Buxton Water Gag (Buxton famous for bottled water, every band has one on stage, congratulates audience on very fine water, everyone goes ha ha ha politely).

10CC have always been an enigma. Their run of chart success, both singles and albums, suggest they should be up there with Queen etc etc but somehow, the mass adulation, instant recognition and media frenzy they managed to evade. So despite number 1 UK hits, a spectacular run, memorable records and huge sales, they remain a sort of large-scale minority (!) semi-guilty pleasure.

Probably because they never had a defined front person, a definitive ‘star’ or focal point in the pack. They were a band – and an art-rock band at that. You never knew quite who you should be looking ‘at’.

History has simplified things considerably in that respect and the only remaining member of the original ‘gang of four’ currently in 10CC is Graham Gouldman. I could at this point make the crack about it being 2.5CC or whatever but in fairness, drummer Paul Burgess has been playing with the band since 1973, which is pretty much the duration of, and lead guitarist Rick Fenn has been with them since about 1978 or so. Which is a while.

So, Graham Gouldman is de facto band leader, and the band do indeed take their cues from him, and the ‘act’ as such, is, as it should be, built around him. That said, he’s a bass player, and, well, you know. Bass man he don’t call for no glamour. Then again, Tom Robinson, etc etc…..

A strange and stagey start to the gig with the band coming on to the audio backdrop of a Graham Gouldman song about…being Graham Gouldman; with squirts of Hotlegs’ “Neanderthal Man” stirred into the mix. This is actually quite evocative and relevant, for Gouldman’s story is a strange one. Few are as prolific and successful as songwriters; he wrote “For Your Love” and “Shapes Of Things” for The Yardbirds, “Look Through Any Window” and “Bus Stop” for The Hollies, “Pamela” for Wayne Fontana and “No Milk Today” for Herman’s Hermits amongst many others. He went to live in the States for a while to churn out ‘bubblegum’ hits for the likes of Ohio Express and Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus. Strange Days Indeed, before Hotlegs who got to number two and sold two million and then, 10CC.

And straight into “Wall Street Shuffle”. Band don’t look overly enthused. It is clinical, but not in a good way; then “Art for Art’s Sake”; and they’ve burnt two classic 10CC 45s, both big hits, and neither audience nor band look particularly engaged by the proceedings so far. And at this point Mr. G and the rest of the band start to talk to the audience and this helps a bit and slowly but surely, they start to ‘unstiffen’. There’s tight, and there’s uptight, and that’s how it looked and sounded early doors, but as the set progressed, matters improved in this respect and that’s a good thing.

Still the hits kept on coming, “Life Is A Minestrone”, attributed to some misheard radio DJ. We have a lot to answer for, it appears. These are Clever Lyrics. And that also can have the effect of driving a bit of distance between the audience and ‘the turn’, but as the band warmed to the task and ultimately the mock-profound lyrics, and the sumptuous layers of sound started to turn things around. “Good Morning Judge” followed, once again reflecting Gouldman’s time in and understanding of aspects of the American experience, in lyrics but also in the chunky country feel this one seems to exude. Another top ten UK hit. Gouldman’s voice didn’t seem altogether ‘there’ on this one, though, which is strange because elsewhere he was spot on.

The band is outrageously talented; various members swap from bass to guitar, keyboards to guitar, percussion to key boards, guitar to bass without any great fanfare, almost just because they can. Indeed Gouldman seems just as happy waving a Telecaster about as he does his bass –and he has a few of those to choose from as well.

Yet another and very interesting hit follows – “The Dean and I”. It is such an effective pastiche of Beach Boys-stylee American youth culture of a time ten to twenty years removed from when it was written – counterbalanced with all the ‘fun’ of being a grown-up, and all that that entails. Perceptive, sharp-eyed and yet still affectionate in a strange kind of way, an early highpoint of the set.

Off we go into the album tracks and – good call – “Old Wild Men”, 10cc’s tribute to Bowie’s “Rock n Roll Suicide”. And the irony was not lost on the band members, especially GG, now 72. Of course, you only get to ‘old’ if at some point you manage to get a grip on ‘wild’, combined with a certain amount of good fortune. This was followed in short order by “Clockwork Creep”, which still has the theatrical power to shock, as we are invited to consider the curious dialogue between aeroplane and explosive device. The theatre, timing and delivery of this really was something else which had the effect of making the following “Feel the Benefit”, a classic Northern expression derived from being forced to take your coat off inside the house, sound a bit ‘baggy’ and prog-rock, really. Which is where a number of 10cc’s album-buying fans lived; in the prog rock bubble of interminable album tracks bereft of hooks, charm or justification. It wasn’t that bad by any means but….some did indeed enjoy it. In a set where they didn’t play “Worst Band In the World” and “People in Love” I struggle to understand, but, fair enough. In a body of work of this size, you aren’t going to get all your faves.

And to be fair, they reacted like they knew this and sweetly harmonised their way through a gorgeous “Things We Do For Love” which FM radio just embraces and celebrates. Very nice camp 70’s hand claps, too.

”Silly Love” then launches itself with careering, skittering intensity and great guitar work. Another high point is reached a few minutes later as “I’m Mandy, Fly Me”, complete with lovely jangly acoustic is announced by the correctly-mixed sample from “Clockwork Creep”. And for most of the time, the harmonies have that sumptuous, layered, multi-tracked gloss they need to bring this off. Can’t be easy to recreate this live even with today’s technologies. Very well done indeed, chaps, especially Paul Canning and Keith Hayman who absolutely shone on this.

And, just as I become aware of two stationary glitter half-balls towards the back of the stage, the band strikes up with “I’m Not in Love”. Recorded around the time of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, when musicians were waking up to the possibilities of multi-layered technologies, this remains one of the most awesome radio tunes ever. And dance floor ‘gnight ‘n’ thangyou’ tunes ever, as well. A number one all century long, it was co-written by Graham Gouldman, and many of the assembled gentlemen sent a silent prayer of thanks towards the stage for something which many will have their own ‘story’ about. I cheerfully predict this tune has not reached zenith point yet in terms of global ‘reach’ and impact. In many years time, this will turn up as THE theme tune to a Massive Film. Even more massive than the last one. And it is played with great accuracy and regard to the original even down to Gouldman’s curious bass meanderings under the girly whisper. One of the greatest UK number one hits ever, recreated beautifully. And what a way to finish your set – with a loose and bouncy chunker-chunk through “Dreadlock Holiday”, another number one hit, finished with ‘I don’t like Buxton – I Love it!’ Beats the generic ‘water’ gag of earlier, I’ll tell thee.

I would have been quite happy to go home at that point but no, the deserved standing ovation brings the encore, and a reflective “Ready to Go Home” leads into a stellar acapella version of the first 10cc hit, “Donna”. This was always a doo-wop pastiche just waiting for this treatment, but the success of this type of treatment depends on the quality of the delivery. Done badly, it’s awful. Done as well as this, it is a guaranteed show-stopper. Brought the house down. As did the only truly ‘rock out’ tune in the repertoire, the rubbery, sinuous “Rubber Bullets” which went all the way to number one in 1973. Standing ovation reprised, band take selfies, all look a bit stunned, which is such a distance away from the reaction and indeed my feelings two tunes into the set, after which I got the distinct impression it was going to be a Long Night For The Riot Squad.

Which it wasn’t.

I have got a bit of an apology to make to Tom Robinson. I bumped into him, literally, in the foyer of the Empire early doors and the best I could manage at short notice was ‘Hi Tom. Blimey! Haven’t seen you in years!’

A statement to which there is truly no adequate response beyond vague mumbles about a better optician, etc etc.

No – what I really meant was me and the McKay bloke with the camera here were once doing a DJ / compere gig at the University of Dundee in 1977 in support of a brand new EMI signing called the Tom Robinson Band, whose first single “2-4-6-8 Motorway” had just shot up the charts to number 5 that very week.

The Band were nervously assembling in the wings when we returned to the backstage area having done our ‘bit’ and Tom asked us if we could get a Uni scarf for him to wear as he went out. We quickly procured one and out he went with the rest of the Band to produce one of the most barnstorming sets I’ve ever heard at a British college gig.

Kids wanna rock.

But that was a while ago and you could hardly blame him for not being overly déjà vu’d.

It’s been a while treading the boards for Moston Manc Lee Forsyth Griffiths as well, and by all accounts the last few years have required a degree of fortitude; and this is evidenced by some extremely introspective songs of love and of loss. Lee cuts a small, pained, but defiant presence on stage and his voice, a well-worn piece of kit bearing the scars but capable of quite alarming tenderness at times, weaves through a selection from his latest album; starting with “Crazy Times” and the surprisingly homey “Nowhere Like Home”, the everything-left-bare of “Love Is” and a couple more before the extremely arresting title track “Silence = Death”. He’s probably a bit of a ‘Marmite’ artist – but I must admit I found his songs certainly stood a listen and the pain of loss in his voice at times was sometimes very, very, stark. Have a listen to the album and/or go see him live and make your own mind up about this one.

Tom Robinson is by his own admission 68 years old now and cuts a solid, rather scholarly, professorial figure as he comperes his own show (well, that’s me out of a gig there, then!) and tells a few stories before strapping that old bass on and as soon as he does, he becomes transformed as the band, who, it is immediately clear, are extremely handy, whip through “Up Against The Wall” and the exhilarating youthful capitalist celebration of the joy of property ownership which is “Grey Cortina”. Alright, yes, I am only kidding. But there’s not a good socialist alive who hasn’t coveted his neighbour’s Cortina, I’ll tell thee.

For this is a celebration of “Power In The Darkness”, the album which followed the aforementioned single up the charts and went gold in both the UK and Japan; which for a ‘new wave’ band was indeed none too dusty. EMI must have been rubbing their hands, albeit in a slightly uncomfortable way given the edginess of some of the subject matter for the time. For a young man in his twenties, some of the writing seems very far-sighted; “Too Good to be True”, assisted in the live context by extremely authentic keyboards and a guitar break which did indeed evoke the spirit of original guitarist Danny Kustow, has aged very well. TR showed with his comments during the show that he knew damn well that some of these songs had stood the tick-tock test; and others had ‘yellowed’ a bit – and so he did what could have been awful but actually worked brilliantly; he changed/added some new lyrics at various points.

“Ain’t Gonna Take It” had an anthemic quality then and indeed it has lost none of this with the passing of the years. It is strident and is delivered in 2018 with venom and attack. Similarly, Robinson contextualises “Long Hot Summer” for an audience who might or might not have known it was written about the NYPD’s regular habit in the late 60’s of kicking three shades out of various members of the gay community in order to bump up their ‘figures’. Until the Drag Queens fought back…and from that into the “Winter of ’79.”. At the time, it really did feel like the next couple of years were going to be a paranoiafest – and for good reasons. He might have got the year slightly off but he wasn’t far out with the violent outcomes described in the song; and this one still sounds utterly convincing told by a bloke in his 60’s. He was there, with the rest of us, peering over the abyss.

“The Man You Never Saw” is played with power and considerable pace and, once again, is a paranoia song. It’s pretty clear when he wrote this stuff, he was used to feeling he was being Watched. And he probably was.  

“Better Decide Which Side You’re On” always struck me as a bit of a slogan masquerading as a song and this performance didn’t really convince me otherwise but “You Gotta Survive” is a quite graphic post-apocalyptic vision for the generation which did expect to wake up with eyeballs fried to the back of heads which gives TR the chance to show, once again, that his voice is a fabulous weapon, capable of a surprising range. And finally for the album, the title track “Power in the Darkness”, delivered with funky suppleness which the keyboards certainly gave a real boost to and a strikingly effective reworking of the ‘spoken’ section; where Robinson’s original Home-Counties ‘Colonel Blimp’ character is replaced with a different kind of ‘old git’; the ageing socialist who looks around him and sees the accelerating lack of kindness, decency, understanding, tolerance, generosity….and in these the decline of ‘traditional British values’. It is, put simply, a brilliant turning of the tables; it seems less strident and clumsy than the ‘original’ mock-hectoring tone; and the audience buy into it because it is warmer, more humane – and therefore more accessible – without cynicism.

Throughout, we are treated to anecdotes and stories, involving subjects as diverse as Alex Harvey, Robinson’s own sexuality, Eddy Grant, second album syndrome, and the perils of audience participation. What marks the difference that the years have made is not so much ‘the message’, for the song pretty much remains the same; but the tone. It is less dictatorial, more rueful; less furious, more appalled; less angry, more amused; less an immediate call to action, more a call to think, to consider and then yes, if you feel so moved, to act.

This slightly less ‘megaphone’ approach works sooo well during the encore as we leave the scripted tracks from the album and finish the set with a cluster of TRB classics. “Martin” always was a great ‘brother’ song, even if and even at the time I remember being moved to wonder how I’d feel if it was my car that was being nicked, my brother who was the ‘copper’. And what a singalong vibe it generates, and at the Empire, it briefly returns to being a Music Hall. Those Were The Days.

And speaking of singalongs, “Glad to be Gay”. Even fully paid up members of the hetero club, then and now, can’t and couldn’t resist this one; and Robinson does give us a welcome opportunity to actually look back and see how much has been achieved in terms of tolerance, understanding and the right to celebrate who we REALLY are; but also to remind us that nothing is ever Safe in this respect, nothing can be assumed, no state of affairs is a permanent and foregone conclusion which doesn’t need protecting and nurturing. 

It has always struck me as weird, then, that a bloke who wrote so many protest songs should come up with arguably the nearest-to-perfect British drivetime tune ever written (possible exception “Road to Hell”, Chris Rea.) In retrospect it is a very good thing “2-4-6-8 Motorway” didn’t turn up on “Power in the Darkness”. It would have had all the contextual integrity of putting “The Birdie Song” on “Deep Purple in Rock”. And the band plays it, if you don’t mind me using the word here, straight. If you’ve got a stadium anthem, play it as a stadium anthem and let it happen as it should. And that’s what they do. And it brings the house down, in my experience for the second time in 41 years and as it has undoubtedly done a few times in the intervening period as well.

TR then tells us a little story about his journey through big initial success, flop second album, losing his record deal, bad business, losing the plot, losing the lot…and starting over, as an independent. And hitting the centre of the target again in the eighties, as the band treated us to an extra encore of the ‘comeback hit’ ‘War Baby’. Me? I would have liked to hear “Atmospherics” but I’m just a radio geek and appreciate I’m probably in a minority and to be fair I can’t see how he’d have worked that into the set, so I won’t gripe. And a real, hard-earned and sincerely felt standing ovation for a quite terrific performance. I really hadn’t expected it to be THIS good.

No, I emerged into the damp and chilly night air and headed for the tube feeling I owed Tom Robinson a bit of an apology. I bought into the whole radical socialist thing and railed against the stuff he railed against back in the day. It was all about personal politics as well as ‘macro politics’. And it was a fairly easy time to be an ‘angry young man’ in 1977. There was plenty to be angry about. But as the seventies gave way to the eighties, and Thatcher, and the pits closed and my home town had the heart ripped out of it…..I began to feel like I’d been ‘had’. I began to feel like for a short while, a ‘middle – class kiddie’ had briefly had me ‘manning the barricades’. Won’t Get Fooled Again. Meet The New Boss. Same as The Old Boss.

However, I can now see that he was – and still is – sincere. With a few tweaks and a spirited live performance to ‘sell’ them all over again, the songs have stood the test of time. Despite the clear advances which have been made, the old dragons are by no means dead. And the “Power in the Darkness” tour is a timely reminder of this from a man who is, I predict, on his way to National Treasure status.

Doreen Schaffer 26/10/18

Oh, ‘tis my delight on a Friday night…..to find a smallish, intimate venue where there’s something interesting going on. Especially after the wide open cavities of the O2 on the previous night.

And there is something interesting going on here, period. Approximately 300 people big when rammed I’d guess, they’ve got anything from the aforementioned jazz and blues to The Sweet, and Steve Harley coming up. Eclectic, you might reasonably conclude.

And tonight, it’s Ska night – and how. Tonight’s headliners – The Skatalites, who had a bona fide top 40 hit back in the day, a day which was a very long time ago when the world was new, with their Skatalitic version of “Guns Of Navarone” and were band mates, stable mates and studio mates with the likes of Prince Buster, Jackie Mittoo, Toots and the Maytals, etc. Bluebeat is pretty much what it was, but they have broadened out and have reggae’d the whole deal up a fair bit as time has gone by, styles have changed and the world woke up to those off-beat rhythms.

Faada Ras 26/10/18

Tony Alli 26/10/18

And, none of your messing about here – The Majestic is playing in support and they soon prove to be an extremely effective unit. Once the sound desk had woken up to the fact that the singer would be best heard with some access to a live mic, they play tracks from their album “Unequivocal Love” and a handful of other songs with discipline, affection and conviction. They are led by Faada Ras who bounces, cajoles and drives the band through the set making certain the audience is completely engaged with what’s going on. Bass player Tony Alli is as solid as a rock but really, this isn’t about any individual; they are a very well rehearsed, very tight unit which actually plays like a band who do a hundred gigs a year or so. They have some good, slick-sounding material as well, especially “Too Cool” and “Free Up Your Mind”. Keep an eye out and an ear open.

They also formed an appropriate and affectionate platform to ‘launch’ The Skatalites. The wonder of these guys is they pack a full three-part horn section of tenor sax, trumpet and trombone – the archetypal full band brass section, but absolutely spot-on for Bluebeat and Ska.

And what they did was really, really interesting and complex. The ‘legacy’ of this band is the stuff from the Bluebeat and Ska era; their original period of peak creativity was around 1963 to 1965 or so; but then they ‘sort of’ split then reformed years later, by which time music had pretty much moved on, the way it tends to. And so, to survive, they adapted and took influence and inspiration from other, later reggae styles – and why not? As individual band members they played alongside the likes of Jimmy Cliff, Ken Boothe, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Peter Tosh. Not only have they earned the right the hard way, how could musicians of such talent be expected to stand still, just because their ‘moment’ happened a long time ago? So in 2018, and still with some, how shall we say, more venerable band members such as drummer Trevor ‘Sparrow’ Thompson and oh-so-solid bass player Val Douglas, who find themselves sharing the same band vehicle as other younger members with other influences, such as stratospherically-talented sax player Azemobo ‘Zem’ Audo and guitarist Natty Frenchy who has been in there with the likes of U-Roy, they present an absolutely fascinating hybrid which seems to zap backwards and forwards from just post-Laurel Aitken and Prince Buster through to much less jagged and almost ‘rocky’ reggae tunes, the kind of thing that Peter Tosh might have been knocking out back in the day.

But it really isn’t the sort of audio train crash it could conceivably have become. These people know exactly what they are doing and move seamlessly between genres without clumsy ‘gear changes’. The trombone really ‘bosses’ the ‘older’ ska tunes, especially the likes of “James Bond” and the pop hit , “Guns of Navarone”; but the guitar easily drives the band along with the more fluid and sinuous songs in the set. Special mention for Ken Stewart on the keyboards as well, who shifted with the deftest of touches from the hard, rhythmic ‘piano’ sound needed on occasion to the more soulful, Hammond-like offering which was also on occasion called upon.

Azemobo ‘Zem’ Audo 26/10/18

The high spot for me, apart from the fabulous instrumental groove of the indeed mighty ”Guns Of Navarone”, was the point where the generally-acknowledged ‘Queen of Ska’, Doreen Schaffer, took to the stage to take us through a clutch of hits from those times. The crowd positively revelled in the warmth and togetherness she generated; Feel The Love, indeed. The fact that she left the stage to even greater acclaim than she arrived to was suggestive not only of the respect and admiration in which she is held – but the fact that she can still Nail It. Which she did.

Doreen Schaffer 26/10/18

Whole place was rocking by the time the band drove hard to the finish line which I think was either a quick blast of the “Nutcracker Suite” or a reprise on “Guns” but to be honest by that time I wasn’t counting. What a joy that was. Great venue, excellent performances. Joyful. I really felt that I’d lively upped myself, and that doesn’t happen every day – and an object lesson in how a band can, with dignity and no loss of credibility, keep true to their roots, but take themselves forward into the future, and still be a relevant and entertaining force of nature. And that’s not an easy trick for anybody to turn.

Photo courtesy of John Hayhurst.

I recently saw a 15 year old Ford Mondeo which had just been resprayed Brilliant White and which was reclining resplendently in the pub car park. I have very rarely seen a consumer durable which screamed ‘OOOOHH! LOOOOK AT MEEE!!’ with quite such intrusive insistence and neediness. Hold that thought. I will return to it in a short while.

Jo Harman was the proud owner of the ‘early doors crowd shuffles in, a bit grumpy as they’ve just got in from work and haven’t yet got over the shock of the price of a beer’ spot in what Mr. M. describes as ‘The Enormodrome’ because yes, I’m back at my least favourite venue in the land, the Eauchew.

And something seems to have happened to her. A few years back I seem to recall a series of sharp, soulful single releases ending up persuading me to programme her on the A-list of ‘our’ couple of commercial radio stations so I was probably in a minority in being intrigued to hear what she might have to offer. Unfortunately, this appeared to be a sort of Joni Mitchell / Carole King hybrid with added ‘soul’; which strangely seems to have the opposite effect, making it seem an even more sterile experience in a half-empty big shed. Keyboard player who accompanied her wasn’t a lot of help either. The irrepressible Robert Elms had a few minutes previously claimed ‘we were the lucky ones’ in catching her set. I must confess I didn’t exactly feel like a lottery winner as a consequence. I wasn’t quite sure what she was trying to achieve and to be honest I don’t think she achieved it short of a polite but lukewarm reception at the end of the set.

The reason her set was truncated and she was introduced with seemingly indecent haste was that things appeared to be running late, which in a time-sensitive, virtually automated venue like the O2, Just Can’t Happen. And so when The Steve Miller Band hit the boards, the sound was still pretty much all over the place. Anyone suffering from a gluten allergy would have been poleaxed; it was glutinous, sticky, thoroughly unbalanced and really quite horrible to begin with. The keyboards, which would play an increasingly important part in the set were virtually absent; the guitars lost in a quite horrible swamp of all the things I do not appreciate which sometimes seems to be ‘the way it is done’ when an American band plays a stadium rock gig. The drums sound like someone is throwing an empty filing cabinet down a lift shaft; the bass is an intrusive, rubbery Audio Prevention Scheme. Which is a blooming shame as the band set off at a fair old lick with ‘The Stake’ and, to quote SM himself, ‘a bit of magic’ – ‘Abracadabra’. Iwannareachoutangrabya. Apart from the fact that if you tried you’d have to get past the white Mondeooh, look at me, go on, look at me – rhythm section.

I must admit I am of the persuasion which tends to believe great bass playing in an ensemble rock setting you barely even notice; it does the job, it hangs it all together, it doesn’t ‘make you notice’. And as for those drums! Whole rows of people felt bottom leave chair momentarily as the hammer came down. And we were sitting hard by the mixing desk; gawd help the benighted souls heading for the stratosphere where the sound is suspect at the best of times.

Anyway. It’s the Blues Fest and we’re going to hear some and the band treat us to “Mercury Blues” and “All Your Love”, an Otis Rush song, and the main man explains to us why and how he has more right than most to sing it. He’s a great raconteur; very unassuming and self-effacing and with that sort of laconic West Coast sense of humour which is at once likeable and engaging. And from that it’s Space Cowboy, and a real ‘oldie’ in “Kow Kow Calqulator”, still muddy but at least the vocal, which is great, starts to assert itself. Steve Miller has a really listenable voice; it rocks, but with just that edge of sweetness and West Coast smoothness that radios have loved for years. Not only that, but jukeboxes, too. Back in the day on both sides of the Atlantic, having a juke-box friendly sound really got you through to people when they were at leisure and unusually receptive to music; and “Take The Money And Run” is one of these and it spat its way sharply across the floor of the O2 towards me – and as it did I can remember having played it just once, then drilling out the hole ready for slamming it on the ‘Union’ jukebox, where it was played until it went grey with wear. Whoop – whoop!

“Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Serenade from the Stars” were standouts from the mid-section of the set and despite the depressingly overplayed ‘Thuds’ and rumbles from the rhythm section, the quality of the mix did improve. The keyboards started to assert themselves and the quirky ‘synthesizer’ FX and the trademark guitar ‘wolf whistles’ started to join Miller’s voice and the excellent harmonic backup to make the gig sound more like…The Steve Miller Band. “Fly Like An Eagle” is a great song, always was and is one of those that just refuses to date; very much like “Swingtown”, which is such an oddball, really, but just works brilliantly as one of those jukebox 45’s, or as a ‘top down’ radio cruiser; and we’re off into the Solid Gold Hits section of the show (and thanks be to the lord that the sound has continued to recover) as we blast through “Rock ‘n’ Me”, which should be the first track every on ‘Drivetime’ CD compilation ever produced and “The Joker”, complete with album cover back drop on the big screen. This song had a strange time in the UK; first released on Capitol Records back in the early seventies, it did OK but didn’t set the country alight whilst it raced to the top in the States and most of Europe; but it went to number one in the early eighties and thereby righting a strange historical anomaly when the record company reissued it once the band had seriously broken through and already had a string of Big Ones for Mercury / Phonogram.

Encore time and they thrash through spirited versions of “Jungle Love” complete with the FX – and “Jet Airliner” which just so suits the ‘double track’ vocal style and purposeful ‘drive’ of the song. And by the end these guys had the vast majority of the arena on their feet – as many had been from about half way through the set – and they had underlined the thing that experienced All-American Bands do best; they know how to put on a show in a stadium, they know how to pace a set, they know how to work through the obstacles that get in the way. And despite my clear annoyance about the sound, I’d have to say they were ultimately worth the entry fee alone.

Don’t tell the Festival organizers though because they’ve booked some bloke called John Fogerty as tonight’s main Turn after the bingo.

John Fogerty. The songwriter, frontman and main driver behind the hits of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fogerty and Co. climbed to the top of the rock ‘n’ roll pile in the US and indeed a position of considerable prominence across the rest of the world when the market was extremely competitive. Playing at Woodstock, the guy is a true all-American music hero. Going back to the ‘jukebox’ theme again, Fogerty virtually made the 7-inch piece of black plastic his personal territory as his hits blasted out of virtually every jukejoint, bar, drive-in, and yes, radio speaker grille across the greater USA. Despite being very much “Born On The Bayou”, by making direct, impactful and Damn Loud tunes based on (in the main) classic rock ‘n’ roll structures straight out of the ‘fifties, his band criss-crossed the states in a dizzying dash to take the music to the people. And he played everywhere and all the time. But he had things to say as well, about which more later.

And so at the age of 73, the main man positively leaps onto the stage in London’s ‘Enormodrome’ to find thousands upon thousands already right with the programme -‘737 Coming Out Of The Sky’ – and we’re playing in a “Travelling Band”. Bedecked in a jacket even more attention-grabbing but considerably less intrusive than Steve Miller’s rhythm section, he smiles sharkishly at the assembled multitude and launches that amazing, insistent, hot-knife-through-butter voice. He looks like a man who KNOWS he’s got what the people want and he ain’t afraid to use it.

“Green River”, “Hey Tonight”, “Up Around the Bend”, ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain”. I’m already exhausted by the intensity and we haven’t even started yet. Band and JF are performing with total energy and conviction and seem to be having a great time as well. The extremely young horn section – especially the sax player – swing and sass with fruity verve and give the tunes the extra dimension they sometimes need to ‘lift’ them to the place where they deserve to be; and he’s a great storyteller as well, grinning throughout he thanks the audience at every turn and tell stories of Woodstock, guitars, family, travel, love and strife. It’s all there.

Most bands who are still fortunate enough to enjoy the experience and guile of a 70+ year old main man usually have to adopt ‘coping strategies’ to eke out the energy and resources of the man it is actually all about. This can entail band solo spots whilst the main attraction has a rest and a change of clothes; a harmony section which sweeps in like a Huey chopper sweeping in to rescue a struggling Marine battalion in the Mekong Delta once the ‘voice’ starts to fade; no such strategies with the goodly Mr F., who holds his bandstand throughout. He SINGS these songs. They are not ‘easy pieces’ to sing; they require sustained power, accuracy and clarity, and there’s no hiding here. He is, however, given a bit of moral support by the appearance of one of his sons, Tyler, who sweeps in to sing “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Psycho” in a good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll tear-up; and indeed Shane Fogerty, who stays on stage throughout and is, in his own right, a phenomenal rock guitar player. And the enthusiasm is just so infectious; you just can’t help grinning from ear to ear. It becomes clear that what’s happening here is a joyous celebration of a career which has defined American rock and roll for more years than seems possible, but not in a ‘curated’ kind of way. This is Some Party.

This is followed by a sober, testifying “As Long as I Can See the Light” and a quick trip down the “Mystic Highway” before it’s party time again as there’s another of the bewildering number of guitar changes and we’re off down to New Orleans. “Born On The Bayou”, surely one of the most atmospheric and downright creepy songs of the genre, gives way to a giggly, jiggly “Don’t Mess With My Toot Toot”, “Jambalaya” and a killer version of Gary US Bonds “New Orleans”. Well, take me to the Mardi Gras. The unfeasibly youthful brass section all head off into the audience playing their heads off whilst Bob Malone, who plays an absolute captain’s innings on a double-edged battery of keyboards – leaping from one to the other with demented energy – but it’s on stuff like this you start to realize quite how versatile this guy is. Rolling, barrelhouse Fats Domino piano? Here you go….and how about a bit of squeeze box…? Anything else? And this all fattens the sound out and makes it fill every corner of the vast O2 in a set which is rapidly becoming a Masterclass in Just About Everything.   

A whole bunch of bands could learn a thing or two about set pacing here as well. “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” is more contemplative fare – but again, another enormous hit which everybody has heard and the audience goes into singalong mode. That’s the way you do it.

Oh, and just in case anybody’s missed this one, this man wrote one of the most important songs in the world, ever. Nothing like a big statement, is there? Especially when it wasn’t a massive hit for him personally. But just imagine what Live Aid 1 would have been like if The Quo would have hit the stage to kick off proceedings and it had all been a bit….meeah? Yep, “Rockin’ All Over the World” is One Of His. Few, if any, have captured the essence of the joys of a touring rock band so succinctly and effectively. Apart from Fogerty himself. ‘Playing In A Travelling Band’. More than one hit song about rain, more than one hit song about life on the road. Blessed is the ballpoint that scribbled on the fag packets that led to those little beauties, I would contend.

And we’re not done. “Down On the Corner” is one of those tunes which just lit up the gloomy doomy turn of the sixties into the seventies. Some managed to keep it simple, kept writing songs for everyone. Bring a nickel, stamp your feet. “The Old Man Down The Road” is another of Fogerty’s admittedly serial reinterpretations of Dale Hawkins’ “Suzie Q” but it’s none the worse for that and “Keep On Chooglin” is an irresistible invitation to have a right good Choogle, complete with spectacular guitar pyrotechnics and another guitar change. And speaking of pyros……Lawdy Miss Clawdy! You could feel the heat generated by the flash-bangs back here by the mixing desk, and the drummer did well not to melt on the spot as great gouts of napalm sprang upwards. Oh – and have you noticed? No griping about the sound. The horrible ‘stadium’ drum and bass combo which so compromised Steve Miller’s set was suddenly clean, clear and unobtrusive, but hard-driving and taking no prisoners. In fact once they’d got the voice balance on JF’s voice during the set opener, you could just forget about it, which is how it should be (but how I feared it wouldn’t be given the earlier problems).

An angry and prescient “Fortunate Son” – ‘it ain’t me,’ indeed – led to an admission that a ‘rather nasty curfew’ was about to descend upon proceedings and so I was left feeling the non-appearance of “Hot Rod Heart” was a bit of a miss but in the context of what we’d already been treated to it would indeed be positively churlish to complain.

So, “Bad Moon Rising” – a fitting bookend to “Fortunate Son” predictably brought the house down (I mean, what a song. What A Song. Two minutes or so spent listening to that at any time of day is never time wasted) and then “Proud Mary” kept on turnin’, and the band went off to a rapturous response, Fogerty smiling the smile of a man who Knew as he turned to look at the mayhem his songs and performance had, once again, created. The applause had barely faded when the roadies were already breaking down, the band were being hustled through the labrynth, and, desperately trying to ignore the jetlag which they had spent the last couple of hours or so denying, contemplating that early flight to Dublin for the next gig the very next day. Rockin’ All Over The World? Playin’ In A Travellin’ Band? You bet. As Long As He Can See The Light, Keep on Chooglin’ Mr. F.

Damn. Why ARE Americans SOOOO good at this sort of thing? Especially this bloke and the band he has built around him. And don’t even bother mithering me with any of that ‘ah, but is it the Blues?’ nonsense. Isn’t even a consideration. Willy and the po’ boys are playing, bring a nickel, stamp your feet. Or Don’t. Your choice.

So, meanwhile, I’m still thinking…..I’d spent a chunk of the last week reporting on the Leek Blues and Americana Festival and with the book coming out and everything, I was feeling a bit knackered so a bit of a break in Norfolk seemed just the very thing before covering Creedence Clearwater Revival’s original main man John Fogerty and The Steve Miller Band amongst others for MusicRiot.

The North Norfolk coast is a very quiet part of the country, though, and something interesting on a Saturday night isn’t normally part of the masterplan and to be honest, I really wasn’t looking for anything which would lead me to flex the writing muscles.

All I want is Easy Action, Baby.

So when we discovered T. Rextasy was playing, literally, an ‘end of the pier’ show in Cromer Pier Theatre that very evening, we couldn’t resist very late seats in what was an ostensibly sold-out house.

However.

It is the best part of twenty years since I interviewed main man Danielz on Newark FM, when he was playing the festival in front of the splendid castle there; how has he managed to carry the live legacy of Bolan through to Now?

Because way, way back then, he was already regarded as having transcended the medium of ‘tribute’ acts. And since then, there has been a positive tsunami of these, some of which play your local pub on ‘band’ night on a wet Wednesday on the strength of the front man bearing a slight resemblance to whoever of whatever, some of whom work at it, get professional representation and marketing behind them, and find themselves treading the boards alongside the Last Men and Women Standing in provincial theatres or as part of ‘jukebox musicals’; the ‘whoever’ story, insert name here. In some cases the ‘originals’ are still alive, and in some cases still turn out for the occasional tour, which makes it all a question of scale, affordability and access. Very strange.

No such problems with Marc Bolan’s legacy. It was all over for the poor bloke by the end of 1977; and he’d been drifting, well off the pace, for a number of years before that. He’d been ‘rumbled’ by then, the ‘cosmic boogie’ card had been heavily played, and he was busily trying to find a way forward in the face of punk, the stellar progress of his old mate Bowie, and the debilitating effects of long-term enthusiasm for the Peruvian Marching Powder.

And during his life, he really didn’t ‘tour’ extensively. After the rash of festivals played with the folksy, Tolkienesque Tyrannosaurus Rex, many of his ‘live’ performances were glammed-up set pieces on Top Of The Pops and the such like. So, it isn’t ridiculous to suggest he really didn’t understand, appreciate or value the power of his songs as live show-stoppers.

Danielz, however, in the years between when I interviewed him for radio (and he’d already been doing this for a while before then) and now, has had more than twice as long as Bolan had to ‘grow into’ the T. Rex repertoire. So, it isn’t ridiculous or sacrilegious to suggest that Danielz probably has a greater understanding of how the songs work in a live setting than Marc Bolan ever had.

And it shows. The luxury of time passing also gives him the opportunity to take risks with the songbook as well, as a younger generation of fans along with the ‘old guard’ don’t necessarily know the difference between some of the minor hits and the ‘B’ sides, hence kicking off the set with “Raw Ramp”, an early 70’s B-side. There’s brave, but the band attacks it with plenty of zip and It Works. Indeed, the whole band are a crisp, disciplined and well-drilled unit, which shows all the hallmarks of hard gigging and professional musicianship, which sadly wasn’t a charge which could be laid at Bolan’s door throughout his career. The biggies are saved largely for the second set, and the middle section of the ‘first half’ is given over to a very enjoyable acoustic section which draws in some Bolan rarities; which makes the decision to do an electric boogie-woogie version of ‘Deborah’ seem a slightly strange one.

The first part of the evening’s entertainment is concluded on a high with a spirited dash through “Jeepster” – one of Bolan’s recordings for Fly Records which are generally regarded as his best; and hearing it live again throws all sorts of light onto it as a song; and for all the world the bones of it seem to have country roots. The bass line which underpins it could easily have been part of a ‘Western Swing’ tune from the late 40’s and early 50’s. Bolan gave us plenty of clues to this – and in the live context presented so expertly and affectionately by T. Rextasy, these become clearer and more visible/audible. In “Telegram Sam”, for example he’s a Howlin’ Wolf at the end, and indeed he is. And a cosmic Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, insert name here. We Love To Boogie.

I can’t help feeling it was rather sad, watching Bolan, as I did, slowly lose his grip on the cutting edge, whilst desperately trying to hang on to it, seemingly only ending up with badly injured fingers. He desperately and at times embarrassingly tried to embrace punk and the songs from this period show someone who was trying to tap into the energy but had seriously lost his way; which is more the pity given he had already written and recorded a proto-punk anthem in “Solid Gold – Easy Action”, which Danielz and Co thrash through at the speed and urgency it calls for in order for  it to work

Predictably and entirely reasonably towards the end of the band’s set, three big shots in “Ride A White Swan”, “Get It On” and for the encore, “Hot Love” and indeed why not? However it is in these more than any other we see the slight ‘morphing’ of these tunes into the live crowd-pleasers they always potentially could have been; for me, the slightly ‘dirty’ guitar sound doesn’t help the first of these as the bright, spangly guitar on it is what makes it stand out; but a rockier and more ‘stadium’ “Get It On” really helps it to live in a more ‘real’ context than a slightly ‘cut and stick’ studio confection; and “Hot Love” gives a whole load of opportunities for a joyful audience singalong which becomes the celebration of a classic body of work it should be. All interspersed with affectionate, cheeky asides to the audience between songs, some of which showing the ‘beyond the call of duty’ respect Danielz enjoyed from members of Bolan’s family and indeed the larger musical family to which we all claim a degree of patronage. If he is to be believed (and having spoken to him I see no reason why he shouldn’t be) in the final years of his life, the only musos of the period Joey Ramone would call were Tony Visconti, Suzi Quatro, Noddy Holder and Danielz. Well, that kind of tells you something in terms of what Danielz has achieved here. What is also interesting for me is to watch Danielz so many years after first clocking his act all those years ago; he really has matured as a performer. He knows how to ‘work’ a crowd alright. Most of the members of the audience were out of their seats for more than half the set and with an audience largely of mature years, that, in itself, is not easy. And meanwhile, I’m still thinking; I wonder if Bolan would have managed the same given the same longevity? Because one thing you can say with absolute certainty is Danielz is a grafter; this act needs work; it needs to be rehearsed, over and over and over, especially in order to develop the flexibility of ‘oh, ok, we’ll play this now’, which the band does seemingly effortlessly. Which takes a lot of effort. Would Bolan have put this level of effort into ‘being’ Bolan? Conjecture.

So, have I ‘lost the plot’ reviewing a tribute act? Or has Danielz, along with the rest of T. Rextasy, escaped from ‘Tributeland’ and become part entertainer, part curator, part terrestrial interpreter for a mercurial talent who won the battle to reap the initial rewards – he drove a Rolls Royce ‘cos it was good for his voice – but wasn’t around long enough to win the war; respect, enormous back catalogue sales and becoming a live draw of preposterous proportions. Would any of this have happened or would he have been playing the equivalent of the end of the pier show?

I suspect the former rather than the latter. But in order to make an informed decision about that, I would strongly advise an evening or a bit a festy in the company of T. Rextasy. And I’m unlikely to say that about Fake Prat or whoever, so don’t get used to it. And meanwhile, I’m still thinking….

Typical; you wait over 40 years and then two come along at the same time. Books, that is, from our own Man Oop North, Steve Jenner. We reviewed his collection of gig reviews a few weeks ago and this time he’s gone full-on autobiography. Now, if you know Mr J, you know that he wouldn’t just sit down and write the story of his life. Oh no, that would be far too easy; not nearly enough of a challenge. It would have to be much more complicated than that; well, a bit more complicated. The Broadcast Brothers tag is a bit of a clue really. The Broadcast Brothers are Steve and Paul Jenner and guess what? They’re brothers; that’s shocked you hasn’t it?  

“On the Radio” is the story of a lifelong obsession with pop music and the way it’s woven into the fabric of our lives. The story takes us from the era of the Dansette, through the pirate stations that led to the introduction of Radio 1, the mobile disco, live bands and back to radio, this time from the other side of the microphone. Now that doesn’t sound too complicated, does it? So, what if the story was told from two points of view, the two brothers intertwining their feelings and recollections (which isn’t a portmanteau word for record collections) together to give a 3D view of a journey from life in a Northern town to life in several other Northern towns with a route that takes in most of the United Kingdom. Steve and Paul have very different writing styles that dovetail neatly to give a rounded, detailed and often bloody hilarious peek into their personal odyssey. 

As well as the fascinating biographical detail of two brothers who have had, how can I put it, interesting lives, “On the Radio” is a historical document of an era, starting with local pirate stations ducking and diving to stay one step ahead of the enforcers to small, just-about-profitable and, most definitely legal, stations serving parts of the country that the big conglomerates won’t touch. It’s a success story, but one that demonstrates that the route to success isn’t a motorway; it’s a winding road through the Peak District. You go up, you go down and, more often than not, you get stuck behind a tractor. The message that shines through the book is that it doesn’t matter how talented and enthusiastic you are (and these guys are alpha in both of those categories), the thing that makes the difference is sheer bloody hard graft. 

“On the Radio” is a spellbinding roller-coaster ride from the sixties to the millennium narrated by two passionate, committed and hugely entertaining raconteurs. It had me spellbound from start to finish and at times made me laugh out loud on my London commute. It’s out now and you can get your hands on a copy by following this link. You won’t regret it. 

 

Leek Blues and Americana Festival, 2018

Well, let’s get this one out of the way to start with; the main reason I found myself actually able to catch a whole chunk of the Leek B and A Fest 2018 was that I was due to visit Holmfirth Picturedrome with me old mucker and noted rock snapper Allan McKay in order to see Graham Parker perform with his band, the Goldtops, and elements of The Rumour.

They were indeed utterly splendid and absolutely what you’d expect from one of Britain’s most soulful singer songwriters with a great new album in “Cloud Symbols” and a back catalogue approaching legendary status.

But that was on Sunday night which gave us the opportunity of meeting up earlier in the week and taking in chunks of the aforementioned – and what a joy it was!

There can be fewer more pleasurable experiences than strolling about a smart and compact English market town with a few old mates, and wandering into various pubs, clubs and other spaces at pretty much any time of day and night, being reeled in by the lure of live music pouring out of an open door or window and the convivial attraction of good beer and the congregation of the like–minded. Sort of a bit like Memphis, or New Orleans, kind of (but a damn sight colder and with better beer and different accents on the vocals. Not to mention a significantly smaller risk of being shot).

The downside, of course, given the nature of the event (5 days, 20 venues, 60+ acts) is that it’s all a bit hit and miss. Some you are going to really enjoy, some are going to be OK and some you’ll be checking your watch. But beauty is in the ear of the beer holder and it’s best just to stick your pin in the copious and well–prepared guide, try and visit as many venues as possible and whatever you come up against, enjoy it for what it is. And have another beer.

Pre–festival warm–ups were worth a dabble in; Foxlowe Films kicked things off on Tuesday with “Sidemen; Long Road To Glory” which features the long and winding road of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters ‘sidemen’ Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, leading from sharecropping days through to winning a Grammy; after which Pine Top Perkins, then aged 97, virtually went home and died, his two fellow musicians all entering that great Juke Joint in the Sky in the same year. Win a Grammy; Triple Whammy. Ain’t that the blues?

And so we’re off and running with a nice low–key introduction with what K-Tel used to describe as Various Artists mixing and matching in a very agreeable fashion, ably curated by Mike Gledhill, who also presented the previous night’s film with similar aplomb. Labelled Leek Blues Acoustic Session, it was, sort of – and despite a few participants using various pieces of kit with mains leads stuck to them it would have been churlish and indeed probably a bit weird to ‘do a Dylan’ and start hollering ‘Judas!’ at those acts ‘cheating’ with the mains. However and be that as it may, a very lovely and convivial introduction to proceedings.

Friday was kick–off proper and for us it started at The Beerdock at half six–ish. The scheduled “Cold Heart Revue” was replaced at short notice by an amiable young gentleman whose name sadly escapes me with a gruff vocal style, an attacking but pretty limited repertoire on an acoustic guitar and a selection of self–penned songs which didn’t do much for me either but, as I say, if you do Blues Fest right you’ll wander about and some will hit your spot and some will miss but full marks to him for stepping up to the plate. Full marks to the Beer Dock, also, for their ‘cut out the middleman’ initiative where despite a lack of a urinal in the gents, they were creative enough to sell beer from what appeared to be one at the side of the bar.

On, then, to Rewind, where we were to meet Red Berryn and the One Dozen Berries presenting a Chuck Berry tribute act. You have to suspend disbelief a bit here as Chucker himself is white and has red hair. However after that there were certain similarities. Nobody in his life ever accused him of being a great singer, or indeed a great guitarist and so far we’re right with the programme there but the songbook is the best ever and well, you can’t miss with a Chuck, can you? Our ‘Chuck’ also displayed certain key Chuck Berryhaviours which drove audiences to distraction in his lifetime; like inviting the extremely tasty harmonica player forward to play a classy solo and then trampling and clanging all over his efforts with this huge thug of a red Gibson copy whilst he did….which the REAL CB was extremely guilty of, a lot of the time. Ask Keith Richards. It was good fun though….especially when I was taken by the creeping realisation that Santa was playing the drums. I kid you not – I saw the drummer being Santa Claus at a few local events last year! And seeing a white Chuck Berry with red hair doing the duck walk backed by Santa on drums in the middle of Leek is not something I will forget in a hurry. Roll Over, Beethoven.

Funk Station had started at Society at the same time and we’d decided to split our attention between these two acts so by the time we got to said venue the whole place had been effectively transported back to 1979. The décor of the place helped – I have never seen so many mirror balls in one place – and so did the band, who turned their trick with considerable dexterity and panache. Just in case you hadn’t ‘got it’ from the clue in the band name they are a Dance Band. They play late seventies / early eighties disco / funk covers with a few 60s and 70s soul classics lobbed in to the mix. They were dead tight and spot on right for both crowd and venue. 30 years back these people would have been earning a small fortune on the Mecca circuit. Their brass section is Brass Construction punchy, their drummer is as Funky As; and even though the vocalist was a bit ‘functional’ she hurled herself around with enthusiasm and did a great job of working what was for most of the time a packed dance floor of happy, smiling folks. Play That Funky Music, White Boy, indeed.

It was a difficult party to leave but leave it we did and headed to catch the dying embers of the Night Owls Blues Band at The Red Lion. This did indeed Take Me Back; these lads were exactly the type of band I’d be featuring some quarter of a century previously when I was presenting music from various ‘Old School’ R’n’B bands on various FM local stations around the Midlands. They sounded spirited enough and with plenty of grit and spit from outside the venue but once inside, oh blimey, were they sold short by the lack of a mixing desk and sound bod. Sometimes bands seem to manage this themselves OK; but sometimes you’re just left with a sibilant mess and the return of tinnitus which is what I took away from The Red Lion; which was a shame because if you stuffed your fingers in your ears, the guitarist was worth the entry fee alone and his mates weren’t far behind him either. My mate who collects guitars and has played on a bona fide American top five pop chart hit reckons it was pretty much the guitar of the festival. I wouldn’t know.

From there it was back to The Cock and Elvis Fontenot. Local people whose ears I respect had been prodding me towards seeing these folks before and I just hadn’t gotten A Round Tuit. Note to self; stock up on a catering pack of rotund Tuits with immediate effect. Elvis Fontenot – an explosion of manic cajun and punk–zydeco energy. The outside area at The Cock is long and quite narrow and so if you find yourself at the front, they are In Your Face in a big way. A gurning bundle of leering, squealing, careening, lurching riot, they are Big Fun. Combining the pace of a Ska band and the intensity of punk with squeeze box and scrub–board tricks and tuneage born on the bayou, this was full of vivacious kick and naughtiness but with extremely high standards of musicianship and let’s hear it for the sound man who kept the whole thing in beautiful balance. Absolutely the best thing at the Festival so far. Mama’s Got A Squeeze Box. Somebody Sign These People – Now.

And so to Saturday and the evening starts early for us at 2PM at The Roebuck. The place is rammed and we only get a passing scent of Pete Latham and Al Bruce but they sounded pretty damn good at long range. Over the road to The Cock and it is time for Steelin’ The Blues. Steve Ajao and Stewart Johnson were up from Birmingham and are we glad they made the trip. An hour of classic country blues and juke joint blues played on acoustic with attitude by a guy who should be doing voices for commercials in near industrial quantities, combined with some of the most appropriate and sympathetic slide playing I’ve heard for some time. It wasn’t just good, it was brilliant. You couldn’t possibly feel better listening to songs of misery and suffering. Cathartic. Just what the blues does for you when it is Right.

With a stunning lack of ambition we then crossed the road again to The Roebuck where Zacc Rogers was holding court. Now, he’s a bit of a ‘Marmite’ act, is Zacc Rogers. You’re either going to be unmoved and feel it’s just a bit weird, or you’re going to be fascinated by his act. He uses sound ‘looping’ tricks with beat box, heavily modified harmonicas and a variety of guitars which look like the bad kid from Toy Story has been doing unspeakable things to them. What comes out of the speakers is sort of Brian Wilson meets Bobby McFerrin at a punk gig whilst busking. Yes, I would agree it is stretching the Blues envelope a bit but Americana, probably fair enough. Dapper snapper Mr McKay was unmoved, saying he’d heard better in this genre, others in our party said they could see it was extremely clever but compared to what we’d just heard from Steelin’ The Blues – so what?

Me? I loved it. This guy has got rhythm in everything he touches and his sense of timing absolutely knocked me over. And was I entertained? You betcha. Go see Zacc Rogers. Make your own mind up. He’d convinced many at The Roebuck, though, who cheered him to the rafters.

We just missed The Extras at Benks and set out towards The Britannia. This is an old style seventies-looking town pub; just right for the sort of London ‘pub rock’ which back in the day would see the likes of Kilburn and the High Roads, Dr Feelgood, The Kursaal Flyers, The Motors and Eddie and the Hot Rods plying their trade. So Reefy Blunt and the Biftas were by no means a bad call. Guitarist does a good line in Wilko Johnson, drummer good and solid, bass player (five strings, not a good sign) seems to think he’s playing jazz and the vocalist is a good, raspy harp player. What you see is what you get. Beery, raspy R’n’B. Old School.

Back then to Benks and Malpractice are setting up. Clue’s in the name; expect solid Dr Feelgood and similar. Problem is they ARE actually setting up and the mixing desk, which is right in front of the PA, is being twiddled by the singer, who leaves the faders open whilst holding the mic right next to the PA stack. Dogs Began to Bark, Hounds Began to Howl.

However, once sound checks done, they fair tore into a smattering of Feelgoods leavened with a bit of Sam The Sham and The Pharoahs and Rory Gallagher, even, the singer staggering around threateningly in that Lee Brilleaux sort of style. Totally convincing guitar sound, nice unfussy bass, metronmic drumming. Solid Senders. We left that as the singer was asking me if I’d Ever Woke Up With Those Bullfrogs On My Mind. I was beginning to realise I would wake up with something like it.

A head–clearing walk across town to The Wellington, where local legends The Lester Hunt Band were amiably ambling their way through a set. I’d recently reviewed Hunter at The Foxlowe – but this was an entirely different affair, mainly rock and blues / rock covers for an audience who had seen the band on a number of occasions. It was a pleasant enough listen but some of the tunes just weren’t well chosen; “Summer of ‘69” didn’t work particularly well, a sort of Dire Straits plays “All Along The Watch Tower” didn’t seem like the best idea of the night and a positively soporific “Whole Lot Of Shaking Going On” almost had me ordering a round of Horlicks. However, they kicked it up a notch for Hunter’s Italian number 1, “Rock On”, despite being a fiddle-free zone, played with a bit of fizz, during which a young woman in the audience did the splits, I spotted Santa playing the drums again and that was pretty much your lot for Saturday.

As already explained we were set to head out for Holmfirth and Graham Parker but we’d been invited to attend Foxlowe Arts Centre at 2PM to see Mean Mary and Frank James and it looked like if we pulled our finger out we’d just about manage that. Mr Mckay is much in demand as a snapper these days and he was pleased to pull in a shoot with Lissy Taylor before we had to do a runner. And on both counts it was a good thing to be his ‘bagman’ as Mean Mary and Bro were Quality, writ large. Not only is she some banjo player – she’s some songwriter, too – and despite the warm and welcoming between track raps with the audience, these are songs with teeth and a voice with a real country soul, containing all the pride, pain and steel of a country diva. She’s more than a bit good and you really must catch her somewhere; she’s already being mentioned in tones of reverence at one of the radio stations where I occasionally ‘work’.

And finally before disappearing in a cloud of unfashionable diesel smoke we caught 5 minutes of Lissy Taylor – just long enough to wish it had been longer than five minutes as a ghostly waft of a certain Ms. Winehouse hung in the voice left back in the room.

Leek Blues Festival week is worth making ‘a bit of a do’ out of. It is never less than entertaining and you will, at various points, bump into some truly great music; and in other places you’ll bump into music which might be a bit less than great, but you might well enjoy it – and that’s the point really. Just like a well–stocked real ale bar, you’ll have choices. But you can’t exercise choice if you ain’t there.

My advice for 2019? Simple! Be there.

Steve Jenner, Live from the Denford Delta

If you’re looking for a reliable way of identifying quality roots and Americana, you could try looking for Black Hen Music or the name Steve Dawson on the label. Please don’t tell me you won’t get this information because you don’t buy music in physical formats; we might fall out. Kat Danser’s fifth album scores on both of these counts and, of course, it’s a cracking good listen. It’s an interesting mix of half uptempo electric songs and half in a more contemplative style with a huge variety of stylistic influences. Kat’s an academic ethnomusicologist (Dr Kat Danser, no less), but the approach to the material on this album is practical and pragmatic.

Each of the songs on the album sounds like it was intended to be played live. There’s very little in the way of studio trickery, just great arrangements and even better playing. It’s noticeable that each song has at least one solo and some have several. It’s a great way of keeping really good musicians motivated; play the meat and potatoes stuff and you get the opportunity to improvise and play your solos as well.

The album splits broadly into two halves; the first half uptempo and ranging across rockabilly, country, blues and Southern swamp grooves, while the second half is generally slower and with more of an introspective singer/songwriter feel. It’s also interesting that the first half is generally about movement, featuring trains and cars (OK, I know “Train I Ride” is in the second half of the album), while the second half deals with standing still, establishing roots and telling home truths about “My Town”.

There’s absolutely no shortage of great songs on “Goin’ Gone”; “Train I Ride” menaces with a “Smokestack Lightning” feel to the guitar riff and some close-miked saxophone, “Kansas City Blues” makes a nod in the direction of Chris Izaak, but the icing on the cake is “Memphis, Tennessee”, a swampy twelve-bar love song to the city that references the fabulous Mavis Staples. It doesn’t get a lot better than this.

“Goin’ Gone” is released on Friday October 12th on Black Hen Music (BHCD0087).

So, where would this little Ben Kunder gem sit in the racks of your local music store? It’s almost impossible to say but I guess it’s going to land in that current catch-all, the Americana section because it features that well-known roots instrument, the synthesiser. The lasting impression of the album is of positivity; the two words of the title cropping up across various songs. It certainly ends on a positive note with a celebration of the birth of a baby in “Night Sky”. Lyrically, the album falls squarely into the introspective singer-songwriter category, but the stylings vary dramatically across the nine songs; let me explain. 

While “Fight for Time” “Better Days” and “Hard Line” fall in to fairly standard arrangements for this genre (okay “Hard Line” features a string section towards the end), “Jessi” has the feel of a eighties drive-time classic driven with some insanely catchy synth hooks thrown in for good measure. In common with the rest of the album, there are hints of Jackson Browne in the writing and the vocal intonation. “Lay Down”, however, is pure E Street Band with perhaps a few hints of Bob Seger in there as well. It’s over five minutes long and the combination of piano and organ from the beginning set the tone; maybe there are hints of The Band in there as well. As the song builds, no opportunity’s missed to gild this particular lily, with extra percussion from congas and tambourine, a falsetto vocal and a huge slide solo. The frantic drumming towards the end sums up the production; if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. “Come On”, which follows immediately, is a welcome chance to catch your breath before the album closes with the lovely “Night Sky”. 

“Better Human” is an immensely uplifting album, focussing on the ways we can make things better for ourselves and each other. The fact that the sentiment is helped along by interesting and innovative arrangements lifts it well above the ordinary run of singer-songwriter albums. 

“Better Human” is released on Comino Music (BKBH002) on Friday September 28th.

It’s obvious that this is a soundtrack of sorts from the get-go. The first thing you hear is the sound of a film projector running as an intro to the opening track as a gorgeous mournful fiddle theme gradually fades in before the themes of the album (and possibly a film) are established. It’s the soundtrack for a possible film based on a novel co-written my Mary James (Mean Mary) and her mother Jean James and the themes of the film are well established by the end of the opener “Harlequin”. No-one is ever what they seem to be and everyone, on screen or off, is playing a part. And not many people make the grade.

The album is an interesting mix of original songs, instrumentals and a version of the hymn “Rock of Ages” which demonstrates a delicacy of touch in the banjo backing, that’s a few steps away from the virtuoso picking of the instrumentals, and a pure vocal that contrasts the rawer delivery of the rest of the album.

Weighing in at ten tracks, “Blazing (Hell is Naked)” may look a little lightweight, but there’s no doubt about the quality of the playing and the variety of musical styles the album covers from the exhilarating improvisations on a theme of “Rainy” through the string band stylings of “Sugar Creek Mountain Rush” and the tango rhythms and tempo changes of the instrumental “Lights, Gun, Action”. Of the two companion pieces that give the album its title, the instrumental “Blazing” opens with a menacing solo banjo and becomes increasingly frantic as it progresses, while “Hell is Naked” carries a more subtle threat and the message that in a world this wicked, Hell can actually show its face without any attempt at disguise.

“La La Hoopla La”, with its nonsense lyrics underlines the endless vacuity of the Hollywood wannabe experience while the album closes appropriately with “I Face Somewhere”, a gentle sixties-inflected piece with some understated, clipped reverb guitar and the lyrical message that a healthy relationship is so much more important than the Hollywood myth.

The album’s a great demonstration of Mary James’ instrumental prowess and the songs powerfully convey the futility and infantile nature of the La La Land experience. If you listen to it as a stand-alone piece, it works very well. If you look at it as a taster for a novel and a movie, would it make me want to read or watch them? It would, without a doubt, so it’s a winner on all counts.

Out now.